Social Innovation

From social entrepreneurship to systems entrepreneurship: how to create lasting change

Zoona has been recognized by the Schwab Foundation for boosting financial inclusion in Africa Image: Zoona

Hilde Schwab
Chairperson and Co-Founder, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Agenda in Focus: Social Entrepreneurs

The 20th anniversary of the Schwab Foundation in 2018 was a pivotal moment to reflect on how far social entrepreneurship has come in the past two decades.

My husband Klaus Schwab and I started the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship because we sensed that a distinct, more entrepreneurial approach to alleviating problems associated with poverty and social and environmental challenges was emerging. We saw a new generation of social entrepreneurs who channelled their passion, resources, creativity and sense of injustice into finding new ways to achieve real change.

Too often however, especially in the early years, they worked in relative obscurity in their home countries. They typically had trouble accessing high-level decision-makers who could support their efforts or help them scale, and they were frequently misunderstood by authorities, funders, the media and the general public.

Therefore, the Schwab Foundation worked with media companies and search and selection partners throughout the world, holding national and regional “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” competitions to raise awareness about the concept of social entrepreneurship. It provided the best of these models with visibility and recognition from world leaders at World Economic Forum events.

After two decades, we currently have almost 350 leading social entrepreneurs from 66 countries in the Schwab Foundation community, demonstrating significant progress on everything from renewable energy, health, sanitation and rural development to job training and access to higher education.

Today, the situation is entirely different. The need for new approaches is no longer under-recognized. Social innovation is rapidly rising to the top of the international agenda. The diffusion of proven models and policy experimentation across the globe is accelerating. More inclusive, sustainable models of doing business and more effective, empowering approaches to social development are being sought.

The World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation are regularly contacted by governments and international organizations that want to learn from the social entrepreneurs and models in our network to understand which policy environments and partnerships are most conducive to lasting success. With this recognition, we documented the policy innovations that enable further social innovation in our insight report "Breaking the Binary: Policy Guide to Scaling Social Innovation".

Large corporations have followed suit too, inspired by the shared value model. They have learnt from the social innovation movement how to build their own social business models and subsidiaries, and adopt principles of inclusion and impact into their core business services.

We have followed and highlighted the leaders, opportunities and models of corporate social innovation in another report in our insight series "Social Innovation: A Guide to Achieving Corporate and Societal Value".

Right now, social entrepreneurs in our community, as well as many of our colleagues and partners in the field, are recognising the limits to incremental growth of single organizations.

The needs are just too large and complex; the underlying causes too deep in history, politics and culture; and the best solutions too constrained by outdated rules and skewed power structures. In our insight report on systems change, "Beyond Organizational Scale: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Systems Change", we started to identify more systemic ways of working. And we have been learning from our community together with leading thinkers at our Harvard executive education module on “Leadership for Systems Change”.

For example, Nidan, which was highlighted in the Systems Change report, initiates, establishes and consolidates “people’s institutions” that enable poor and marginalized communities to take collective action. While many organizations aspire to a build-operate-transfer model, Nidan’s goes deeper: it works from the inside out, building structures of leadership, operations and governance alongside the core activities of advocacy and service delivery. Nidan founded the National Association of Street Vendors which successfully advocated for the National Street Vendors Act, which passed in 2014 as the first comprehensive legislation for street vendors in the world.

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For all these reasons, we need to think of social innovation as an ecosystem of pioneering actors with a common purpose, if we are truly to see the models of social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs transforming the way the world works, in government, business and civil society.

Therefore, the Schwab Foundation Board has moved to adapt the Foundation’s focus to the scope and complexity of social challenges and the evolving dynamic of the social entrepreneurship landscape, putting an emphasis on moving the field forward collectively towards more systemic social change. We will be introducing several strategic changes to the Schwab Foundation’s selection process, as well as three new award categories to build an inclusive community reflective of these actors. Collectively, we hope they will have the opportunities to build platforms for greater and more sustained change.

The Board have also appointed Dr. François Bonnici as the new Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship to take forward this new vision, evolving the strategy of the Foundation while building on the last two decades. In the search process, we put emphasis on finding someone who could act as a thought leader and partner to our expanding community, making an active contribution to moving the field forward.

François is a physician, professor and the former Founding Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town. He is the ideal leader to take the Schwab Foundation in this direction, given his wealth of experience of working across multiple systems, sectors and scales, deeply rooted in context and front line work, while also engaging extensively with public sector, business and international institutions.

Through his career, he has been recognized as a Rhodes Scholar, Global Leadership Fellow of the World Economic Forum and Archbishop Tutu African Leadership Fellow. Under his leadership, the Bertha Centre team was awarded the University of Cape Town Distinguished Social Responsiveness Award.

With a grounding in fostering human relationships and providing care as a doctor, François has been recognized as an empathic leader with great integrity and humility. His pioneering spirit and bias for reflective and collaborative action have made him a leader able to navigate the complexities of the 21st century.

The Schwab Foundation Board are very grateful to the former Head, Katherine Milligan, for her leadership and for helping to shape the next chapter in the Schwab Foundation’s history.

We also recognize the incredible group of Social Entrepreneurs in our community for all their pioneering work around the world, their support of each other and the Foundation, their questions and challenges to the world, and their persistence and progress in the service of others.

We are very enthusiastic about the role the Schwab Foundation will play alongside its growing community and partners during its third decade, as its renewed vision, strategy, programmes and leadership advance the systemic impact of social innovation worldwide.

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How these social innovators harness community and collaboration to help create system change

Sophia Otoo and Francois Bonnici

May 1, 2024

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